Joy had a body to die for. That's why the deaths of over 200,000,000 people--many of them murdered--never happened. Joy's body . . . and the roar of a 110-story building collapsing before my eyes.
Just thinking about it brings back the suffocating stench of death . . . God, how could I, an ordinary Ph.D. in history from Yale, have ever smelled death? It began with good advice.
New Ph.D. in hand, I was lucky to get a tenure-track assistant professorship to teach at Indiana University. I was on my way. Do my research, publish a book or two and some articles, keep my relations with the lovelies on campus discreet, and tenure--academic heaven--would be mine.
I'd learned from my graduate advisor at Yale how the academic game was played. Publish, yes. But also get to know the greats in the field. Mingle with them, carry their books, show devotion to their ideas, attend their presentations, and ask softball questions that make them look good. Then, as flowers attract bees to produce honey, they'd help get my books and articles published, and help me win research grants. And where else does one meet such esteemed individuals than at conferences and seminars held by the central organizations of one's field of study?
I took this advice to heart. Only two weeks into the Fall semester at Indiana University, my department chairman, Sam Palmerton, approved an invitation for me to participate in a democratic peace seminar held by the International Studies Association at Rutgers. I no longer recall what happened there. I surely played the game and showed my stuff, but it's all been squeezed into an infinitesimally small point of memory by what followed.
After the seminar, I delayed my flight out until noon the next day--September 11--so I could visit my cousin, Pete Baxter. Pete was a bond broker for Tucker Brokerage in the World Trade Center, North Tower. He was managing $43,000 in bonds that I had inherited, and I wanted to discuss selling my bonds and moving into stocks. Besides, this was an opportunity to see him for the first time in years.
That morning, I took the PATH train from New Jersey to the World Trade Center. I arrived at 8:50 a.m. and hopped on the escalator up to the concourse.
I found the area empty of people; spooky, to see a public place so still and quiet. I looked around; for the first time, I noticed the smoke hanging in the air. It smelled sour. The air felt sticky. Empty shoes lay scattered over the floor.
My heart began to pound. Something was very wrong.
"Get out! Run!"
I whirled to see a policeman gesturing frantically towards the concourse doors. Without thinking, I obeyed.
Outside, the street was littered with glass, concrete, and papers of all kinds. Still more papers floated down from above. The stink of burning things and gasoline hung in the air. I couldn't run, but had to step over and around the debris.
I almost tripped over what I initially thought was a side of beef. As I dodged it, I realized it was a naked torso without arms or legs. I was too dazed to do anything but register the mangled torso and automatically look for its sex, without absorbing it at all.
Further on, I passed a large tire and then a woman's delicate hand with a wedding ring on one finger. It was severed at the wrist, lying palm upward, fingers slightly curled. Not one of the polished fingernails was broken. The owner would be happy about that. The stupid thought flitted across my mind like the CNN Headline news items that pass across the TV screen.
By the time I got across the street, I felt sick and weak. Several people stood there, looking up at the tower. Some of them held their hands over their mouths--either because of the stench or out of horror; I didn't know.
I leaned against a building and finally started thinking again. Yes--Jesus!--I'd seen a naked torso. A man's. And I did see a woman's severed hand. God, I thought, what is going on? Finally, I followed the gazes of the people standing around me.
Clouds of smoke billowed from an inferno visible through a gaping hole in the tower, somewhere around the 90th floor. I stared. I couldn't imagine what had happened.
Above the flames, men and women stood at the windows. Some stood on the sills of broken windows with smoke rolling out from behind them. Suddenly, a man jumped from a window and twisted in the air as he fell more than ninety floors.
A collective gasp of horror burst from the crowd around me.
Another person jumped. And another. One landed nearby with a wet plunk.
I leaned over and vomited. When I straightened, wiping my mouth, my eyes rose on their own to the burning building. Oh my God, I realized, my cousin is above the flames.
My hand trembled as I took out my cell phone and called my cousin. I was surprised when he answered immediately.
He asked quickly, "Honey?"
"No," I responded, "this is John. I was about to come up when I saw the fire. What happened?"
"A plane hit the building. I can't get Julie. She's not at work yet. Look, I'm going to try to keep calling her, but I don't know how long--" I heard muffled coughing "--I think I'm going to die. I can't get the door open, and smoke is coming in through a large crack in the wall. It's hot. Too hot. I'm sitting under my desk. I can't breathe."
He paused; for a moment, I thought something had happened to him. Then he said softly, "Please John, if I can't get to her, tell her I love her . . . I love our children. I want her to be happy, to find someone--" more coughing "--who will make her and our children happy. Tell her that, John. Tell her that . . . ahh . . . we will meet again in heaven. . . . Goodbye."
The connection ended with a click.
Tears filled my eyes. Heart thudding, I unconsciously shook the cell phone and beat it against my trembling hand. It was as dead as my cousin would be soon, I knew.
Then I heard the unmistakable sound of a low flying jet. Its engines grew to a scream. I jerked my gaze upward, and watched the plane fly into the South Tower. It disappeared inside for a half-second, and then the near and opposite sides of the building erupted in a huge red and black mushroom cloud of burning aircraft fuel and debris.
Except for emergency personnel, people on the street tore their eyes away from the horrible sight and fled. Police and firemen tried to help the wounded, but there were too many. I saw one woman stumbling along, her hair melted to her head. Her clothes had been burned off her body, and skin hung from her arms. I rushed over, lifted her, and carried her to an ambulance.
"Thank you," she managed to say. Patches of her skin still clung to my arms and I tasted the stench of burned flesh when I resumed my flight.
I'd only gone fifty feet or so when the sight of a bloody woman sitting on the curb stopped me. Slivers of glass glittered in her hair and on her shoulders. A little boy, probably her son, tried to stanch with his shirt the blood streaming from myriad small cuts on her head and shoulders. Before I got to her, a fireman whisked her up in his arms and rushed her down the street to a police car as the boy held onto her dangling hand.
As I fled amid this bloody horror, I heard a loud rumbling sound. I stopped and turned, just in time to witness the South Tower collapse in on itself. A tidal wave of concrete dust, paper, chunks of the building, and other debris billowed between the buildings and churned down the street. It was like a Hollywood spectacular with the best special effects. Except it was real. I was in it.
I tripped over a rock, scrambled to my feet, but too late--the cloud swallowed me. I heard pieces of concrete and steel hitting cars, but it was so dark I couldn't see anything. My nose filled with the stinking dust, soot, and ash; my lungs and throat were full of the stuff. It coated my body. It tasted like white glue and felt like gritty sand when I rubbed my face to clear my eyes and nose.
I slowed to a crawl, moving ahead carefully. I almost tripped over a young girl who fell down ahead of me. As I helped her up, I made out the dark lines of blood streaking through the thick gray ash covering her face. Before I could do anything to help her, she vanished.
I threw off my coat, took off my shirt, and wrapped part of it over my nose so that I could breathe through it. Fortunately, there was just enough light for me to see that the people at Chase Plaza II had opened their doors so that those near the building could escape the cloud. I stumbled through the opening.
Inside was heaven. In stark contrast, those who had fled inside looked like war refugees. Thoroughly covered in gray soot and dust, red eyes standing out like those of zombies emerging from their graves, we all splashed bottled water and soda on our faces and guzzled still more, trying to clear our throats with the liquid. Like many others, I puked black soot until only spasmodic dry heaves remained.
After an hour, the cloud had dissipated into a gray mist. I ventured outside and joined a procession of haggard looking people escaping across the Brooklyn Bridge. Some cried, leaving lines of wet skin showing on their sooty faces. Some stumbled along in shock. Others, injured, dribbled spots of blood into the inches of accumulated fallout. Some of the injured streamed trails of blood behind them
I came upon a young boy with a compound fracture of his right arm. Sooty white bone showed through his flesh. I helped him across the bridge and to a police car. One older man, a small step at a time, tried to carry two briefcases while dragging a third through the fallout. A woman plastered in gray concrete dust and soot took his bags in her arms and helped him across the bridge. She turned him over to emergency aid workers.
Somewhere along the way to Pete's house in Queens, a motorist offered me a ride; somewhere else, I was able to wash my face and hair. Still, when I arrived at the house, I looked like a creature from Hell in a grade B horror movie. Pete's young daughter Betty opened the door when I rang the bell and screamed when she saw me. Pete's wife Julie came running, recognized me, and dragged me into the house.
The living room was full of friends, many crying or with wet eyes. Faces were drawn and haggard. No one talked. Some held hands. Two TVs tuned to different channels blared the news about the attack on the Towers. I smelled coffee.
Julie's face was drawn, her eyes red, and her cheeks tear-streaked.
I couldn't even think to say hello. I just blurted out to Julie in a voice I didn't recognize, "Did Pete get through to you?"
"Yes. I was on the phone with him when the tower came down. His voice was cut off and then I only heard static." Sobbing now, she continued. "We saw it. We saw it and he's not dead. I know he's not dead."
Immediately, her friends rushed over and enveloped her in their arms. Pete's little daughter Betty began to cry hysterically, and his son Paul tried to comfort her with tears in his own eyes. I went to them, pulled them into my gray, sooty arms, and hugged them to me. I could do nothing but make soothing sounds and give them human comfort.
I stayed over that night and wouldn't abandon Julie and the children all the next day. I called Sam, who understood why I couldn't make it back to Indiana and my classes. One of the other professors would take over for me, he said.
"We're all horrified," Sam said. "Of course we understand. It's terrible, just terrible."
I could not return if I wanted to, since all commercial flights were grounded for the next four days. Full commercial air service was not available for many days more.
Pete remained missing. Having seen the collapse of the tower, I held no hope for his survival. Julie at first refused to escape to her parents' home in Toledo, despite their pleas for her and the children to stay with them. She wanted to stay in Queens, in case Pete was found. She filled out a missing person form and included a sample of hair from his hairbrush for DNA tests.
Julie, like the rest of us, volunteered to help in the search for survivors. We stood in a chain of volunteers among the collapsed wreckage and passed debris from person to person to trucks in order to clear the way to search for survivors.
In a few days, we were no longer needed. Hope had dimmed. On Monday, September 17, a full week after the attack, Julie's friends and I persuaded her to depart for Toledo on a morning train. That afternoon I caught a flight to Chicago, and took a bus from there to Bloomington, Indiana, and my faculty apartment.
The terrorists made one serious mistake when they destroyed the World Trade Towers. Timing. A week earlier, a week later would have made a universe of difference. I wouldn't have been here.
Hard to believe now that the very first words I heard from Joy would eventually end in my ultimate horror.
I was an ordinary new assistant professor living an ordinary academic life. And gorgeous Joy? She was just my student. Or, so I thought.
Thinking back on my academic life is like looking at a photograph of me when I was four years old. I can't believe I was so young, that I knew so little, that I've changed so much since. Or that I would contract the death of people and kill some with my own hand. That time when I was a professor has become ethereal, like a half-recalled dream. Except for the last class lecture. The last class lecture of my life. The time when Joy shot into my life with a question that set up all the events to follow.
I'd returned from New York to resume teaching the Fall semester of 2001 at Indiana University--my "History of Democracy and Violence" class, wasn't it? Still so far in the future.
I'd had difficulty getting the course in the curriculum, since I was a new professor and it was an odd course. But Sam had published research on the topic himself, so he wrote a long justification to the Dean. He pointed out that democratic peace was now well established in historical and international relations studies, and it was about time that undergraduate students became acquainted with it. Not really persuaded, the Dean nevertheless had agreed to allow the course for one semester, its future approval conditional upon enrollment and student evaluations.
Amazing, isn't it? If the Dean had said no, Joy would not have taken a class from me. And the history of the world would be as different as life from death.
As I organized my notes for my final lecture of the semester, I worried over the same questions I'd asked myself when I began the class: How can I make my students feel in their gut what ten million or one hundred million bodies mean in human terms--that people died in agony, often for nothing but their ethnicity, religion, or political views, or to meet a death quota enforced by their rulers?
This frustrated me. I didn't know how to convey the true horrors without making the students ill and turning them off. I wanted to show them that there was hope, that by fostering democratic freedom throughout the world, we could end war and the terrorism, genocide, and mass murder we call democide.
I decided to tell them a story about a student--someone like them; someone with whom they could relate. I knew well the reports of Chinese refugees, including former Red Guards that escaped from China during its killing purge called the "Cultural Revolution." I'd studied this period of Chinese history in detail. So my story, though fictional, was accurate in background. There were rumors among former Red Guards about such a girl.
Well, in my hot and stuffy classroom I gave my final lecture. I began with something I thought would get their attention. "Even after the most painful physical torture, facing execution afterwards, people can die with a smile," I said. When I felt every eye upon me, I told the rest of the story:
As an aspiring chemist attending a university in Shanghai, Chen Ying was a very serious student. Although attractive, she shunned boys in favor of studying in her room--her solitary home except for classes and trips to the library or chemistry laboratory.
Her dedication to science made her suspect. While she attended classes, Red Guards invaded her room and rampaged through it looking for evidence incriminating her as anticommunist, pro-Western--a capitalist-roader. They found all they needed: physics and chemistry books in English, and her diary. The diary damned her; it contained critical remarks she'd foolishly written about the Communist Party.
Security police arrested Chen Ying as she left her chemistry class, and took her to the municipal jail. There, teenage Red Guards tortured her for the names of the accomplices aiding her in spying on the Communist Party.
A young girl, no more than sixteen years old, in a Red Guard uniform grunted as she forced the large butterfly screw on the thumb crusher another quarter turn. Chen Ying screamed hoarsely and jerked her head, spraying tears and mucus around her as tremors wracked her body. Slivers of bone glinted white in the ruin of her other thumb, which the Red Guard had already mashed into a bloody pulp.
Two boys held her down and took turns yelling at her, "Confess. You are a spy. Who do you spy for?"
Pain was her universe. She shuddered and quaked with it. It made her dizzy and nauseous. It had made her release her bowels and she squirmed in her own waste. Twice already she had vomited. One of the boys had cupped a rag in the vomit and smeared it over her face.
Between the shouted demands of the boys and her screams, she could hear bone cracking in her left thumb.
She struggled to remember that name, just that one name, that's all she now desired. But the excruciating pain of the thumb crusher destroyed all Chen Ying's thoughts, thwarted all memory.
Then the agony leveled off and receded slightly. Impossible agony now became unbearable pain as somehow her body fed her system enough endorphins. And just at the edge of her mind, almost within her grasp, it was there. She fought to pull that name through the pain.
A new burst of pain drove it away; desperate, she tried to change her focus to chemical formulas. She only could recall H2O--water. Agonizing seconds seemed minutes. She thought of CO2 for carbon dioxide, and bore down mentally. She battled the excruciating, burning pain. She struggled to imagine pushing the waves of pain aside with her hands to give her mind space to remember.
It was coming. There--the more complex formula for glucose. Then it almost escaped her in a new wave of pain. She caught it--C6H12O6.
Out of nowhere, the name she sought popped into her mind.
"Stop!" she cried. "I will . . . confess."
The girl at her side stopped turning the screw on the thumb crusher.
Gasping for breath, Chen Ying tried to get the name out before her pain submerged it. "Zhao Jin," she whispered. Her voice broke on the last name. "I am . . . the . . . concubine of Zhao Jin."
The girl looked shocked. Both boys leaned forward, staring at Chen Ying. One said, "Zhao Jin? You screw Zhao Jin?"
"Yes, I . . . spy . . . for him." Now more strongly, she said, "That barrel of pig shit . . . said he would . . . protect me."
"You lie," the girl said, without conviction.
"Ask him. Why . . . would I lie? Nothing . . . can save me . . . I'll soon die."
The Red Guards said nothing more. The girl's blood-flecked hands flew to unscrew the thumb crusher. She tossed it on a shelf with other torture instruments. Then she and the two boys left without a glance back.
Chen Ying waited for the inevitable. The pain lessened, and she was able to think. She imagined the results of her victory as she prepared herself for death.
A few minutes later, two uniformed policemen came in and lifted her by her arms. She screamed as the movement in her thumbs sent new waves of agony through her body. They force-marched her out to a small yard enclosed by high concrete walls.
One of the policemen forced her to her knees and pushed her head forward. The other took out his handgun and shot her in the back of the head.
There was the beginning of a smile on her face as it hit the dirt.
The next day, security officials invaded the home of Zhao Jin, the leader of the Maoist faction of Red Guards in Shanghai. A thorough search discovered a Japanese camera, an American radio, and a Western pornographic photograph. Security police arrested and tortured Zhao Jin, but he would not confess. Nonetheless, the items found in his home made Zhao Jin's guilt clear. A week after police arrested him, they forced Zhao Jin to hang a large sign from his neck that proclaimed "I am a capitalist spy." A cordon of security police led him to the Shanghai Workers' Stadium. All along the way, people screamed at him and pelted him with stones, broken pieces of wood, and any other debris they could pick up. Finally, at the stadium, before a crowd numbering in the tens of thousands that the Maoists had gathered for this event, all beating the air with their little red Mao books and hollering revolutionary slogans, security police shot Zhao Jin to death.
Three days later, officials went to the home of Chen Ying's mother. They told her that they had executed her daughter as a spy, and that the bullet was a waste of government money. The cost of the bullet, they said, was five fen--about three cents. Officials demanded she pay for the bullet the police had shot through the back of her daughter's head.
I finished the story in a hushed classroom. As my gaze swept the room, it touched on Joy, seated in the back, and I saw her wiping her eyes. She was the only student so affected.
I used the story as a launching pad for my general conclusions of the semester. I gestured, making figures in the air to shape my points. I paced back and forth, every so often writing a crucial word on the blackboard. I slapped my hand on the podium for emphasis. I was an actor playing out my truths.
I yelled, "Something like 174 million people were murdered in the twentieth century by governments." Moving my hand around in a circle, I yelled louder, "That many corpses, laid head to toe, would circle the earth about four times." I drew a straight line in the air as though underlining this, and exclaimed even louder, "Four times!"
I leaned forward, one hand on my hip, and swept the classroom with the other hand. I dropped my voice to a conversational level. "That's a conservative estimate. The number murdered might even be as many as 340 million."
I let that sink in.
After ten seconds, I said softly into the silence, "This does not even count the nearly forty million killed in combat in all the domestic and foreign wars in this century."
I briefly reviewed the details of these murders and wars, and referred to Chen Ying's story. I paused. I scanned the faces before me. I stood still, except for my hands, which I brought to my chest and then swept outward. As I did, I said, emphasizing each word, "This need not be. There is hope and a solution. Democracies do not make war on each other and, as a historian, I say bluntly . . ." and now I wagged my finger as though each word was at the end of it ". . . they . . . never . . . have."
I took two steps to the podium and folded my hands on top. In a low voice I asked, "But what about genocide and mass murder, what we call democide--murder by government?"
I waited as though I expected a student to throw me the answer. None did. They knew my lecturing style by now. I deserted the podium and stepped as close to the front row of students as I could get. Leaning forward, pointing with both fingers toward the class, I answered, "Democracies not only don't make war on each other, modern democracies, with their civil rights and political liberties, commit almost no domestic democide."
Now for the final questions of the semester. I returned to the podium, leaned over it with my hand on each edge, and asked, "Is democracy a practical solution?
"Yes," I answered. "Democratization is practical and in fact is being aided by many current democracies."
I hesitated, as though making a paragraph break.
"Is it desirable for reasons other than ending war and democide? Yes, it is desired by all those enslaved by autocracies around the world."
Now, a longer hesitation for the most important point of all. I looked over the class before I asked, "Is universalizing democratic freedom possible? Yes. Oh, yes. If we work to foster universal democracy, we can do it."
I stopped. My hands dropped. Nothing remained. I was sweating, my armpits beneath my brown corduroy coat were wet, and I think I smelled. Voice almost breaking, I ended with a simple, "Thank you."
As a professional, I'd studied this subject since I was an undergraduate at Yale. I was a teacher teaching my specialty, but this was the first time I'd tried to communicate this horror, and humanity's hope, to students, and I came close to choking up.
No use. I could see open disbelief on the faces of the students I had failed to reach. The same incredulity I saw whenever I mentioned this to my colleagues, other than Sam.
Many politicians had visited the university that semester, and I was often invited to a "look the new boy over" dinner or cocktail party with them. But, just mentioning that democracy could end war, genocide, terrorism, and mass murder by governments earned me a polite look, a "how interesting" response, and a change of subject. One hostess, a sociology professor's wife, gave me a stern look and a surreptitious shake of her head when I broached the subject at her dinner table.
There was mild applause when I finished my lecture. The students rapidly departed, some seeming to flee. Surely due to the overheated classroom, I told myself. For most, this was the last class of the semester.
Joy, however--whom I'd noticed from the beginning of the semester because of her outstanding beauty--came up to me after class.
She always sat in the back and never asked questions. However, she had received an A from me on all my quizzes, the midterm, and her first term paper on the Cambodian democide. I presumed from her name, Joy Phim, that she was perhaps of southeast Asian descent, and her light olive skin and the long black hair she wore tied in a ponytail seemed to confirm this.
"Professor Banks," Joy said in a soft, feminine voice. She stood about five feet, eight inches tall to my six feet, so she tipped her head up as she talked to me. From this new angle, I admired her beautifully oval face and the full lips that she lightly emphasized with lipstick. "I am very impressed with your course. My mother also likes it very much--she also did the reading you assigned. We often discussed these readings far into the night."
Joy looked at me reflectively for a moment with her remarkable black eyes. They were large, almond-shaped, fringed with long black eyelashes, and tipped up at the corners. Her eyes and her voice . . . I could never just observe her voice and her eyes. They always attacked me with their declaration, "I am woman. I am feminine." I melt now, thinking of them.
Joy said, "My mother would like to meet you. She hopes that you will be the guest of honor at her dinner party."
That's when I saw her look of anticipation, of eagerness peeking out from the aura of calm she projected.
Surprised by her invitation, I answered reflexively, "No, I can't do that. You're my student and I have yet to read and grade your final term paper and give you a grade for the course. I'm sorry. It would be wrong for me to accept such an invitation from a student."
"I understand," she said without any hint of disappointment. "I will explain to my mother, and I am sure that she will consider inviting you after all the grades are in. Goodbye, and thanks for the excellent class." With that, she turned about gracefully and glided out of the classroom.
I couldn't help noticing how well her denims outlined her sexy rear end. Clever of her to wear those tight jeans. With them, she laid the cornerstone for my lust--lust that she soon would build into a towering edifice.
I immediately regretted my "no," but I had no choice. Even if I had not considered it wrong, another student might if he had received a low grade and heard about the dinner party and the probable A that Joy would get.
This was in fact the grade I gave her for the course a week later. Joy wrote a first-rate term paper on the Vietnamese boat people--those who, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, had tried to escape persecution and death in Vietnam. They generally had sailed unseaworthy scows, large rowboats, and coastal fishing vessels into the deep ocean, attempting to reach China, the Philippines, or Indonesia. Joy put this incredible suicidal exodus in context, and estimated that about 500,000 boat people had probably drowned or were killed by pirates. I thought this was close to the truth.
I didn't know at the time that her parents had been among the victims.
A day after I posted the grades in my class, I got a call from a woman with an Asian accent. "Are you Professor Banks?" she asked.
"Yes," I said. "Can I help you?"
"You are Joy Phim's professor, yes?"
"I am her mother, Tor Phim. My daughter says that you could not eat dinner with us because you had yet to give her a final grade in your class. She now has her grade. So I repeat my invitation to dinner at my house with some friends."
"Thank you, but I am--"
"Please. It is very important to meet you and talk. I will give you five thousand dollars to come to my dinner. If you agree, I will send the check now so that you will get it before my dinner. Okay?"
I was stunned. Who was I to get such money? If I were a retired president, famous star, or athlete, yes. But I was unknown outside Indiana University, its students, and a small group of colleagues.
"But you don't understand," I said, feeling lame. "If I were to accept your offer, I could never again let your daughter be my student."
"That's okay. She has quit school now."
"What?" I blurted. "She's an excellent student. She can't drop out!"
"She has. Anyway, come to my dinner to find out why."
"Okay, give me some time to think about it."
"You must decide soon. There are many people invited who must come from far away, and the scheduling is difficult. I need one week's notice."
"Thank you, Mrs. Phim. I will call you. Please give me your phone number."
After I got the number, I hung up and sat back in thought. Is this a joke? I wondered. So much money for so little. Maybe it's a con game.
I looked to my computer and checked the search engine of the local and national Better Business Bureau web sites. Next, I opened the Google search engine and looked up "Phim." I got over 35,000 results. So much for that.
I called the secretary to the Dean of Students, and after identifying myself, explained, "I'm about to write a good recommendation for a student of mine, but I want to be sure she hasn't had any problems in other courses or with the administration. Could you just check the name of Joy Phim for me?"
"Just a moment, please."
I heard her computer keys clicking, and she soon came back on the line. "She is an unclassified student and was only taking your course. In fact, she has taken no other courses here."
I knew from my class enrollment sheet that Joy was unclassified, but I didn't realize she was taking only my course. Over the next two days, my mind kept coming back to her: Why just my course? Why would she quit, or transfer? And what prompted her to do so? I must admit that my questions were often punctuated by images of her beautiful face and her attractively-filled jeans.
The third day after Mrs. Phim's phone call, a check for five thousand dollars arrived, drawn on the account of Nguon Industries. After staring at the check, holding it up to the light, examining it closely, and smelling it, I settled down. With the clue in hand, I returned to my computer. I brought up Google on my browser and input "Nguon Industries."
This time Google responded to my search with a few thousand possible matches, but each of the first ten or so seemed to reference some product or other of Nguon Industries. I located their home page, and was surprised to discover a privately owned conglomerate. Its home page listed shipbuilding, imports and exports, oil drilling, and electronics. It also linked to a page listing their top executives, and there she was--Tor Phim, President.
My curiosity got the better of me. I called the number Tor Phim had given me.
A male voice asked, "Can I help you?"
"My name is John Banks. Mrs. Tor Phim is expecting my call."
"Yes, thank you. She said you would be calling. I must shift your call to another line. Please be patient."
The line clicked a few times, an operator spoke in a foreign language, and soon I heard, "Hello, Professor Banks. Thank you for calling. Do you hear me okay? I am in Seoul, Korea."
"Yes, fine," I blurted, taken aback.
"Did you get the money?"
"Yes, thank you."
"Will you come?"
"Yes. When will the dinner be held?"
"I will set a date. What is convenient for you?"
Since I planned to spend my Christmas vacation researching a book I was writing, my schedule was flexible until class began in January. "Any time before Spring semester is okay," I said.
"Good. I will let you know. Goodbye."
A few days later, Joy knocked on the frame of my always open office door. "Hello Professor," she said, "remember me?"
"Of course; come in." I recognized her voice, in spite of the sultry tone. I didn't see her at first. My gray metal desk faced a wall, and the door was behind me. I never liked talking to students over a desk. I swiveled in my cushioned office chair, stood up as she came in, and stood staring for some seconds until I got a grip on myself. Joy smiled at me coquettishly, but for the moment it was lost on me. I was staggered by her sheer beauty.
Joy's shiny black hair cascaded down over both her shoulders and brushed her waist. Her bangs fell across her forehead like a curtain drawn aside to reveal large, bright eyes and a flawless complexion. Gone were the student's backpack and jeans. Now she wore a tight blouse, open at the collar to expose a golden choker, and a taupe skirt complemented her light olive-colored skin and showed off her long legs. She carried a light, fur lined coat over one arm.
Her lipstick seemed brighter; redder, I noticed. And what a perfume she wore! Light; not overdone; just a hint of gardenia. Must have been a hundred dollars an ounce.
Joy exuded a heady mixture of Asian femininity and sexuality. If she'd been a photo in some fashion magazine, I'd have scissored it out and hung it in constant view. Weeks later I realized that she had selected her clothes and had made herself up to make me lust for her. Perfectly done. Perfectly achieved.
Ah, so typical.
There was laughter in her eyes as she broke through my breathless silence with, "I'm glad that you will be joining us for dinner. It is now tentatively planned for Friday, January 4. Is that okay with you?"
"No problem," I said. "Classes don't begin until the next week."
"You will be picked up at 5:30. Where is your home?"
"I live in a faculty apartment." My hand trembled as I wrote my address on a sheet of paper. I hoped she didn't notice the paper shaking when I handed it to her. At least I can control my voice, I observed wryly as I said, "I'll be waiting at the entrance at 5:30."
"Good. I could not find your dissertation in the library. Do you keep a copy of it, and drafts of any other writing projects, that I can duplicate? I'm sure my mother and her guests would like to look at them."
"Sure," I responded. Glad for the excuse to regain control of my hormones, I wheeled--or so it seemed to me, although perhaps it was more of a gentle turn--and pulled my prize possession from the bookcase. "Here's my dissertation," I said, only to be overcome again when my gaze returned to her. "Because you were such a good student," I stammered, feeling self-conscious, "I trust you, but please bring it back to me when you're done."
I lifted a pile of papers from my desk. "And here's the first draft of my untitled book on genocide and mass murder in the twentieth century, minus the chapter I'm working on. Please excuse all the markings on the draft, but that's the way I work--I can't write and edit these things on the computer."
Even as I handed the manuscript to Joy, I couldn't believe I was doing this. Never before had I given a draft in this condition to a student. If she'd asked, the keys to my Toyota MR2 were hers to borrow also. I was that mesmerized.
"Thank you, Professor," Joy said, wrapping shapely arms around the dissertation and manuscript. "I'm sure my mother will be pleased. Bye." She flashed a smile dipped in honey, and then she was gone.
I just stared at the empty doorway in disbelief. I'd read about reactions like mine and thought they were all hyperbole. Yet there I stood, a well-educated professional, knocked off my feet by a young woman. I refused to believe it was love at first sight. More like throbbing lust, I told myself. I even thought I smelled horny. No matter what I chose to call it, I couldn't get her off my mind ever again.
When I returned from lunch the next day, I found a note in my mailbox that a package was waiting for me. I retrieved my dissertation and the manuscript Joy borrowed and tore open her accompanying note:
Dear Professor Banks:
Thank you and I trust you will find everything in order. Looking forward to seeing you at the dinner on January 4.Joy Phim
I reread the note, inordinately pleased by her small courtesy. I studied the neat, feminine handwriting as though it held some hidden meaning. Finally, I said to myself, "John, you stupid ass, you let yourself be caught." I felt my mouth stretching into a grin. "What's stupid about it? It's . . . " I looked for the word. "Wow!"
Ah, that limousine ride. The beginning of my education about this woman who would dominate my life ever after. I ask myself now, "If I knew then what I know now, would I jump screaming from the limo, rush back to my apartment, and barricade the door?" Would I have allowed myself to become an executioner, a murderer? To play god? To be a crusher or creator of governments? To become Joy's lover?
Joy's lover, of course. As to the rest, well, it went along with the territory, didn't it?
I reached the front door of my faculty apartments at 5:30. It was more than being anal about punctuality. I couldn't wait to see Joy again.
A white stretch limousine with opaque rear windows drove up. Joy sat next to the driver. She waved at me and got out of the car while the driver stepped around the limousine and opened the rear door. Although it was cold out, she wore no coat. With her jet-black hair cascading down her back and over her shoulders, she looked as much a work of art as she had in my office.
Joy motioned me into the limousine, but my eyes seemed pinned on her face.
"Hello," I managed to say. "After you."
I followed her into the warm limousine and we took seats on either side of a small table. I squeezed out of my coat and let it hang over the back of the soft white leather seat. I couldn't keep my eyes from roving over the luxurious interior as the driver raised the partition between us and the driver's compartment and the limo purred into motion. A little drink bar was tucked into a corner behind the front seat, and the blank screen of a small television occupied the other corner.
I now knew how rich her mother was, but knowing was different from seeing and feeling, and here I sat in this incredible limousine. While she was alive, my mother made enough money from tennis for us to live a middle-class lifestyle, and there was my dead father's pension. After her death, her insurance, and the pension, along with some part-time work on my part, put me through college. Wealth of this magnitude amazed me.
Joy smiled at my expression. "Isn't this limo something? We used to live in California before moving to New York ten years ago, and in both places I was always taken to school and picked up afterwards in a limo like this. Some of the boys teased me about it, and started trying to trip me, pull up my skirt, or steal my books. So I beat each one of them up, and then they kept away, far away, from me. One husky boy tried to ambush me several times. Each time, I took it easy on him, until I got fed up and broke one of his legs."
"You broke his leg?" I repeated, stunned.
Joy nodded matter-of-factly. "His father sued my mother and the school, but she put a private investigator on him. In weeks, her lawyer met his lawyer and threatened to divulge his affairs. He dropped the case."
This hit me like a brick. Here she was, this beauty I knew only as a student sitting in the back of my class, revealing in her very first conversation with me that she'd beaten up on boys who bothered her, and broken a boy's leg. On purpose.
Joy sat looking at me with large almond eyes that shone with anticipation. She was enjoying herself.
I had to break the silence, but what could I say? I let the words fall out, hoping they would be intelligent. "Miss Phim--"
"Please, call me Joy."
"Okay, I'm John--unless you take another class from me," I hastened to reply. Then I forgot what I was about to say, and lamely asked, "Oh yes--why will you be quitting school? Or are you transferring?"
"I will let my mother tell you about that. She has everything planned."
My eyebrows climbed of their own accord when I thought of her words of a moment before. I got up the nerve to ask, "How could you beat up all those boys?"
Her chin lifted. Looking at me as though I were going to challenge her to a duel, she explained, "I've been trained in martial arts since I was four, by the best teachers in Karate and Judo. I'm also a weapons expert, above all with the knife."
As surprised, disconcerted, and confused as I was, she might as well have said she was a man. I felt like I'd sat down in the middle of a spy thriller--a lot was going on in the movie, the cinematography and directing were great, but I didn't know the plot or who were the good or the bad guys. I brushed my hand through my hair. "Why are you telling me this, Joy?"
"Because you must know. And you must believe."
Joy ignored my exclamation and slid into the seat next to me. "Punch me as hard and as fast as you can," she said.
Was my whole evening going to be one shock or surprise after another? "You're kidding. I won't do that."
"I guarantee you, you won't lay a fist on me, and I'll be in a position to kill you, if I want."
This is so ridiculous, I thought, and threw a half-hearted punch at her shoulder.
Joy caught my fist in her left hand, even though the angle was awkward for her, and commented, "I could have parried that when I was five. Come on, John, go for it."
I threw another punch with more force behind it. She also caught it easily.
Joy stuck her tongue out at me! "Weakling, weakling," she teased. "John is a powder puff."
I still hesitated. So she took a sheet of paper from a pocket behind the front seat, wrote something on it, and handed it to me.
"I absolve Professor John Banks of all responsibility for any injury I may incur as a result of my request that he punch me as hard as he can," I read aloud. She'd signed it "Joy Phim."
Well, she'd asked for it. I swung a powerhouse right at her forehead. I still couldn't bring myself to aim at her nose or chin.
Joy moved her head aside so fast, I swear I saw it blur. With her left hand, she caught my fist where her head had been, cupped it, and let her hand roll over her shoulder with it. And tickled me under my chin with the fingers of her right hand.
"These fingers would kill you if this were for real," she said in a bland voice.
More silence as I digested that. I tried to calm my swirling emotions. "What's going on here?"
"You must get to know me and my special . . . skills," she responded, with a curiously sensual emphasis on the last word. "And don't ask why you must know me. You will find out tonight."
Now I know, years later, that this was also an ego thing with her. She just had to show me what she could do. And if she couldn't show me, she'd drop hints--in her sensual emphasis of "skills."
"How old are you?" I asked, with some exasperation overlaying my awe.
"I thought you were much younger," I said. I'd always found it difficult to tell the ages of Asian students. Some looked as though they hardly belonged in high school, not to mention university. I hastened to move onto more familiar ground. "What is your major?"
"I took only your class," she countered.
"Well, you should take more classes and major in something, if you want a degree."
"I don't need more degrees. I got a B.A. in political science at Berkeley four years ago, and an M.A. in computer sciences in another two years at Princeton."
I couldn't believe my ears. "Political science? Computer sciences? My God, Joy, why were you in my class?"
"My mother wanted a firsthand account of your interpretation of the democratic peace." She laughed and put a finger on her lush lips. "Be patient. You will soon find out everything. But, I want to tell you about my mother before you meet her. Please listen carefully. Her story will tell you why I must do what I will."
"What is that?" I asked in exasperation.
"Be patient and listen, John!" That was the first of a million commands she would give me. I never got used to it.
She leaned forward and solemnly looked into my eyes, as though she could pass through them into my heart. "Live this story, John. I want you to feel the agony of what my mother went through. I want you to know it deep inside where you keep your empathy, your compassion, your love. No, not your mind, John, not your thoughts. Don't think. Relax your mind and just listen. You must feel this. Then, you will understand better what is to happen this evening."
She sat upright, brushed her hand against her eyes. "My mother, Tor Phim, once lived with her husband, Nguon Stheary, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia," Joy began.
April of 1975 was a happy day for Tor as she waited for Nguon beneath the torn awning on the ramshackle building where they lived.
The war was now over. After successive retreats, General Lon Nol could no longer even defend Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, against the Khmer Rouge guerrillas. The Cambodian Army had declared a cease-fire and laid down its arms. Soon afterward, the government conceded defeat and opened Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge and their leader, Pol Pot. An army of 68,000 guerrillas achieved victory for a communist party of 14,000 members against an army of about 200,000 men.
Naturally petite, Tor was skinny from lack of food--a common problem in Phnom Penh at that time. Her face was still round, though--"Just," Nguon always told her, "as I like it." She had kept her black hair cut short to keep it out of the way as she worked in her cousin's small restaurant. On this day, she wore an orange blouse and a beige sarong.
Nguon was teaching, but she was sure he had heard the news about the great victory. No doubt he would cancel class and join her to welcome the guerrilla soldiers. They were supposed to arrive within the hour.
Tor heard people celebrating all around her. Many intellectuals and middle-class Cambodians, disgusted with the everyday corruption of the government, were willing to try anything that brought change, even communism. Tor was no less happy. She was already thinking about bringing her own mother from the northeast, where she had been trapped by the war.
There Nguon was, all smiles as he approached her in his common black shorts. He took her hands and, looking into her eyes, said, "My dearest one. During all these years of war we prayed to Buddha for peace, and now it's here. The world will change today. What a great moment."
They walked to Sisowath Quay down which they expected the major force of Khmer Rouge to come on their way to the Royal palace. Many people were out on the streets, laughing, talking, all waiting. Almost every other building had white material--clothes, sheets, or towels--hung from windows or poles.
A low rumble grew into the mechanical roar of trucks. Everyone stopped whatever they were doing and looked toward the approaching noise.
Down Sisowath Quay came the Khmer Rouge. Those soldiers in the vanguard rode in trucks and vehicles of all descriptions. Behind those, squads of guerrilla soldiers walked in single file down the center of the street. They carried an assortment of weapons. No guerrilla seemed older than eighteen. All wore black, pajama-like uniforms, sandals made from strips of tires and inner tubes, and black Chinese caps. Each soldier had wound a red-checkered headscarf around his cap or neck. None of them smiled or looked at the crowds of people lining the roads.
Some of the people cheered and clapped, but most just smiled and waited to see what the victorious guerrillas would do next.
After watching for a while, Tor commented, "They are so young. How could they defeat the army?"
"Well, they did," Nguon responded. "Let's go back to our place. I've seen enough."
Tor and Nguon ambled back to their apartment climbed the worn steps and walked down the dim, unpainted hallway to their room. Although almost too excited to eat, they thought it best to get something into their stomachs before what surely would be an evening of celebration. As they ate some reheated rice and fruit and a little leftover ham Tor had saved from the restaurant, they discussed what they would do once the city settled down.
Shots echoed out on the street as they were cleaning up. Tor and Nguon rushed over to the small window and peered out. They saw people moving past their building, their faces creased with confusion. They were looking around and glancing often over their shoulders. Waving their guns and yelling, several Khmer Rouge soldiers pointed in the direction the people were moving.
Tor gasped. "What's going on? I thought the war was over."
"I don't know," Nguon replied. "Maybe some Lon Nol soldiers don't want it to end. I'm going out to take a look as soon as we finish here."
But when they finished cleaning up a few minutes later, the noise from the street had increased greatly. Babies cried; car horns blared; people yelled constantly. Nguon and Tor exchanged an anxious glance. They decided to take a look outside, but when they reached the street they couldn't believe their eyes.
A mass of people of all descriptions, packed almost shoulder-to-shoulder, moved in the direction the soldiers indicated. The crowd eddied around the spots where the guerrilla soldiers stood yelling like a stream around boulders. Here and there, a crowded car, small truck, or motor scooter crawled along in the flow of humanity. Tor glimpsed several motorbikes loaded down with possessions.
"Move, move. Get out," the Khmer Rouge soldiers shouted, waving their rifles.
Standing on their steps, Tor looked up the road in the direction all these people were coming from, and saw a body lying on the walkway two buildings down. Another body lay a little further away. Everyone in the crowd avoided them. The bodies created little eddies of their own in the stream of people.
A black-clad soldier with a red scarf around his neck rushed up, pointed an AK-47 at them, and screeched in the high, thin rasp of a teenage boy, "You must leave this evil place. Go now!"
He couldn't be over fifteen years old, Tor thought.
Nguon didn't understand. "Go where? Why?"
"Go! Go! Out of the city. Now!" he screamed at them, even louder.
Tor was scared now. Her voice trembled when she asked, "But can't we get something to take with us? It will take just a--"
Nguon grabbed her hand and jerked her off the steps. He pulled Tor down the side of the crowded road. They were jostled and pushed by people and bumped by the heavy suitcases a few people carried. A short distance down the crowded walkway, Nguon, who was tall for a Cambodian, looked back. Not seeing any soldiers nearby, he pulled Tor into an alley with him.
"What are you doing?" she asked between gulps of air. She'd begun to shake.
"Don't say anything," Nguon urged, putting his finger on her lips.
Still gripping her hand, he pulled her with him as he cautiously rushed down the narrow, trash-filled alley. When he came to an intersecting alley, he peeked around the corner.
"No soldiers," he murmured, and turned the corner with Tor still in tow. Several old people milled around in the alley, asking about all the noise and what was going on. Nguon ignored them.
Within minutes they reached the rear of their building without seeing any soldiers. Obviously, the soldiers were stretched thin in trying to cover all the alleys, roads, and buildings in Phnom Penh. He guessed, however, that the soldiers would began to search these buildings soon.
A small step at a time, Nguon entered the building through the rear entrance, peering down the hallway to make sure there were no soldiers inside. He motioned for Tor to follow him, and they rushed to their room. The hallway was deserted--others had also gone out to investigate the noise in the street.
Once they were inside, Nguon allowed his own fear to show. Looking at Tor, he said quickly, "I think that kid was going to shoot us. I don't understand it, but I think we should prepare for the worst and get away before they search the building."
"Where are they sending us?"
"I don't know, but hurry now, let's pack what we might need. Pack food, of course, and blankets, clothes, and the money we've hidden."
Tor walked to the corner of the room and pulled out from under a glass topped rattan table a large, battered French suitcase that had been in her family for two generations.
"No, no," Nguon said, stopping her. "That's too clumsy. Just two bags, one for each of us, and not too hard to carry."
Tor fetched her wicker shopping bag from their small closet and Nguon picked up the school bag he used to carry books and papers, and they began to fill them. Just in case they lost a bag, they split the rice and fruit between them, and each took a small bottle of drinking water. They also divided between them their family heirlooms and their other few valuables. Tor kissed her old gold locket containing a photograph of her mother and father, then tucked it into the side of her bag where she wouldn't accidentally pull it out. She also threw in a box of tissues.
Nguon looked around, stood thinking for a moment, and chided himself, "I almost forgot." He took an old Cambodian tourist brochure from a drawer in their one cabinet, tore out the map inside, and put it in his bag.
He stepped over to the sink they had used for everything from washing dishes to their bodies, picked up an old Japanese chef's knife and handed it to Tor. "Wrap this in some of your old clothes and hide it in the bottom of your bag," he told her. He picked up a six-inch French carving knife, wrapped it, and deposited it in his own bag.
"Okay, let's . . . " Nguon trailed off as they heard more shots.
Tor rushed over to look out the window. "No, they can't be doing this!" she exclaimed.
Here and there in the stream of people, invalids were being pushed in wheelchairs. Others staggered along on crutches. People pushed hospital beds with their loved ones still in them. Tor saw an intravenous tube stuck in the arm of one of the invalids. The tube was connected to a bottle hanging from a pole being wheeled along beside the bed by a woman who was probably a relative.
"The soldiers must also be emptying the hospitals," Nguon said. "We can't do anything about it. Let's go."
They hurried down the hallway and paused on the stairs to look both ways before plunging into the moving mass of people.
Teenage soldiers stood at the intersections they came to, waving their rifles or AK-47s to split the human mass onto the different roads. After hours of slow movement, tired from being jostled along and from carrying their bags, Tor and Nguon reached the countryside. But there was no stopping.
Along the way, they continued to see the bodies of those the soldiers had shot.
The crowd was thinning out as older people or those burdened with heavy suitcases or many children fell behind. Suddenly, Tor and Nguon saw two of the black-clad soldiers who had been standing nearby pull a boy out of the procession.
He looked about fourteen years old; no older, it appeared, than the soldiers grabbing him. He wore shorts, a blue shirt much too big for him, and army boots that were much too large--the tops of the boots came almost to his knees. He surely had stuffed stockings or tissue into the toes so that he could wear them.
"You're an enemy soldier," one of the Khmer Rouge soldiers yelled, eyes blazing.
"No, I'm not!" the boy cried, fear in his voice.
"Where'd you get those boots?" the other soldier screamed at the boy.
"They're his dad's," his mother protested, rushing up to stand beside the boy and bowing up and down to the soldiers, her hands clasped in front of her as if praying.
"My dad's," the boy whimpered.
"Your father was shit," yelled the first soldier. He aimed his rifle at the boy and shot him in the stomach.
The shock of the bullet sent the boy sprawling backwards. He and his mother screamed simultaneously. The boy lay, clutching his stomach. The soldier reached down and dragged the dying boy away from his mother, who had fallen on her knees by her son and was trying to put her arms around him. The soldier pulled off the boy's boots, tied their shoelaces together, and swung them over his shoulder. He shot the sobbing mother in the head.
No one in the crowd, including Tor and Nguon, did or said anything. Each knew to do so could mean death. Tor started to cry, but Nguon pulled her away from the scene as fast as he could.
As night fell, the soldiers allowed people to find places to rest in the nearby hills and fields. Everyone tried to form groups of family members, friends, or just acquaintances, as long as it was someone. A few older men moved from group to group, asking for water, food, or cigarettes. The evacuation had caught them when they were away from home. They had brought nothing with them.
The soldiers offered no food, nothing. The Khmer Rouge had not stocked any food, water, or medicine, and provided no aid stations along the evacuation routes. The soldiers abandoned the sick to die or recover on their own. The infirm or sick were forced to find help from other evacuees, or fall out of the crowd and risk being shot. On some evacuation routes, there was no food until the evacuees reached the villages where the Khmer Rouge almost randomly settled them. Those without food starved unless they could find, steal, or beg food along the way.
In the rest area, people were using a slight depression nearby to relieve themselves. There was no privacy, but no one looked anyway. Tor and Nguon took turns visiting the depression, while the other watched their bags. Afterwards they sat by a tree on a slight knoll, making sure they were upwind from the depression.
Tor opened her bag. She was now very glad for it, although it had grown so heavy to carry that her arms ached. Nguon had tried to take it from her and carry it with his own, but she wouldn't let him. She took out a white sheet, stood up, and spread it on the ground beside them. She sat down on it and motioned for Nguon to join her. She pulled chopsticks and a bowl of leftover cold rice from his bag, and set these down between them while she lifted two bananas and some grapes out of her bag. They ate their feast in silence and washed it down with some of their water.
When they finished eating, Tor said, almost in a whisper, "Dearest, I don't understand any of this."
"Neither do I," Nguon replied. "There were rumors of the Khmer Rouge evacuating towns that they controlled before the war ended, forcing everyone to be peasants in the fields, and shooting former government officials and all captured officers. We all thought that was government propaganda."
"What are they going to do with us?" Tor wondered aloud, putting her arms around her knees and looking at a squad of soldiers passing by in the dim light.
For a moment Nguon looked at the soldiers too. He turned his back on them, shook his head, and admitted, "I don't know, honey. If we don't rest and sleep, however, they won't need to do anything to us."
He pulled a blanket out of his bag and lay down, pulling her down with him. She snuggled up to him as he covered both of them with the blanket.
In the morning, as Nguon was putting his blanket away, a Khmer Rouge soldier, a boy with an old American M-1 rifle, strode up and pointed to Nguon's wrist. "I want to see your watch," he demanded.
Without a word, Nguon took it off and handed it over. The boy looked at it, held it up to the sky, held it to his ear, smiled, and put it on his wrist. The band was much too large for the boy's skinny wrist, and the watch dangled. He stretched the band and pulled it up his arm over his black shirtsleeve until it fit, just below his elbow. Looking at it happily, he strode off.
Tor later learned that the Khmer Rouge had evacuated everyone in Phnom Penh--between two and three million inhabitants and refugees. They evacuated all the cities and towns they occupied after their victory. The wealthy or middle-class citizens who had tried to ride out in cars soon abandoned them, or the Khmer Rouge soldiers seized and destroyed the vehicles. They also soon confiscated loaded motor scooters or bicycles. The vast multitude of pitiful urbanites and refugees had only possessed their feet, like Tor and Nguon. They formed straggling, trudging columns that extended for miles, like a fatal migration of lemmings.
The soldiers killed anyone who disobeyed their orders. They killed anyone who withheld any items the soldiers wanted. There was no law, no rules, no order except the soldier's commands, demands, and whims.
Day after day, Tor and Nguon plodded along the narrow roads and trails, crowded together in the jumble of humanity that flowed out of Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge had told them that the evacuation was for a few days. This had been a lie. To minimize disorder, Nguon guessed.
Aside from the outright killing by the Khmer Rouge soldiers, the arduous evacuation, the lack of food and medical facilities, exposure, and sheer fatigue and emotional stress soon took its toll. Babies, young children, old people; the already sick, injured, and infirm died along the way. A medical doctor named Vann Hay, evacuated with all the rest, told them he saw a dead child every two hundred meters.
Tor and Nguon trudged for eleven days, and at each village along the way, the soldiers chose a dozen or so evacuees to accompany a Khmer Rouge village chief. Sometimes a village fed those that were to continue; sometimes they came across a store along the road and the soldiers allowed them to take whatever food was there. They ate their fill at one small Buddhist temple stocked with military rations.
Finally, they reached a small village that Nguon thought was near the much larger village of Phum Knol. He'd stolen glances at his map to keep track of where they were. Phum Knol was northwest of Phnom Penh, on the edge of the Chuor Phnum Kravanh Mountains. These were low mountains with many passes through them to Thailand.
The village was a simple clearing in the forest, with several dozen huts on both sides of a single lane, and a cleared area for planting. They could see the bent backs of peasants tending the crops. Tor and Nguon and eleven other people were the last group to be settled. There were three older men, two young women, and two other couples, one with two children whom Tor had befriended. When the soldiers led them into the village there was no one around except the fat village chief, Theng Pech. He stood, dressed in the usual black, baggy, pajama-like clothes, waiting for them with his pudgy arms across his chest and his short legs spread apart. The soldiers led the group to stand before him, and moved off at a distance to watch.
Frowning, his lips puckered, Pech studied each of them. When he finished, he scowled. "Are there any doctors among you?"
Everyone looked blank.
"Any lawyers, former government officials, or soldiers?"
Still, no one said a word. Along the evacuation routes, all had seen what happened to those admitting any such profession, or even contact with them. They were either shot where they stood, begging for mercy, or they were taken into a field with their families and one by one beaten in the head with a hoe until dead.
Nguon said not a word. Tor gasped out an emphatic, "No," under her breath.
Teachers, lawyers, and other professionals, according to the Khmer Rouge, had been contaminated by Western influence, and were therefore to be exterminated. Cambodia had received its independence from France twenty-two years before, but the French corruption, the Khmer Rouge believed, still permeated the professions. They sometimes even exterminated those with college educations.
Pech moved among them, stopping before several of the men to demand they tell him about their jobs. One said he couldn't find work; another claimed he was a cook. One naive fellow said that he was a court clerk.
Pech leaned forward. Spittle flew from his mouth as he hissed, "You are a counter-revolutionary. You worked against the people."
"I wasn't a government official!" the unfortunate man protested, "I was just a clerk!"
Pech's voice rose to a scream. "You die!" He waved to the soldiers and pointed at the man, who had fallen to his knees, shaking, and clasped his hands together.
"I did nothing," the man pleaded. "A clerk. Only a clerk. I love the revolution."
Two soldiers came up on either side of him and lifted him by his armpits. They dragged him, crying, into the nearby forest. Minutes later, those in the village heard screams and loud thumps.
Pech strode up to Nguon and tilted his head to look up at him with a questioning expression. "What did you do?"
"I worked in a vegetable and fruit stand," he lied.
"Did you own it?" Pech asked suspiciously.
"No. I hate capitalists," Nguon responded.
"Show me your hands," Pech demanded with a black look.
Nguon held out his hands and Pech bent over to study his fingers and palms--searching for a soldier's blisters or calluses, Nguon explained to Tor later.
Not satisfied, Pech ordered, "Take off your shirt."
Tor was shaking now with fear, and could hardly stand as Nguon took off his shirt.
"Bend over," Pech demanded.
When Nguon obeyed, Pech knit his brows as he studied both of Nguon's shoulders, looking for any discoloration, thickening of the skin, or marks that indicated Nguon had recently carried a pack, rifle, or machine gun on his shoulder and thus had been a soldier for the former evil government. "If there had been the slightest suggestion of this," Nguon told Tor, "I'd be a dead man."
Pech flipped his hand at Nguon for him to put his shirt on. Without a word he turned away and strode to the front of the group. Tor let out her breath and, blinking back tears, tried to grab Nguon's hand. He shook his head in warning and put a finger to his lips, indicating the watching soldiers with his eyes.
Pech motioned for the group to spread out in front of him. When their shuffling stopped, he began his little welcoming speech.
"You are here to work for the revolution. You will learn to farm from the peasants, and through your work in the great soil of Cambodia, your thoughts will be purged of the evil capitalist and Western influences that pollute your minds. Here you will be reborn as true sons and daughters of our land."
Pech glared at them all, as though daring them to show unhappiness or unwillingness. He continued. "Okay, here are the rules. The married among you will get a hut to yourselves. The rest of you will all live in the large hut you see behind me. You will all turn over any utensils, food, pots, knives, and anything else you possess, except for your clothes and blankets. We are all communists here and all equal. We share everything."
Pech stopped, folded his arms across his chest, and again looked at each of them in turn. He now harangued them. "There will be no talking without permission, except between married couples, and only in their hut. You cannot leave the village without a pass, and when you go to work it must be in groups of no less than five, with a guard. There is no money. We will provide you with everything you need. We do not allow you to pick fruit in the woods without permission. If we give it, all that you pick you must turn over to the village."
Someone behind Tor shifted uncomfortably. Pech paused and glared at the culprit for a moment before continuing. "You will always eat together, never privately. You will work from 6 AM to 8 PM. After work, you will spend no more than thirty minutes eating, so that you can attend our reeducation lectures and learn about our great revolution. We allow no radios and no letter or note writing.
"If you disobey any of these rules, we will execute you."
The work was exhausting. Nguon's hands were always bloody and when he straightened, he clutched his back. Tor was in no better condition. They all were growing weak from insufficient food. All that they produced from the fields and picked in the woods was trucked away, except for a small portion. They dared not complain.
One day, while working in the field, Tor saw the boy Yann collapse and sprawl on the ground. Possibly he died before he hit the ground. Possibly he was on the brink of death. Possibly malnutrition or some disease caused it. No one knew anymore why people died. They were all in such poor condition that a simple cold was often lethal.
Chek shrieked when she saw her son fall and, her hands reaching for him, dashed to where his skinny body lay stretched across his hoe. She threw herself on the ground next to him and cuddled his limp head on her lap. After a moment she realized that he was dead. Wrenching sobs shook her whole body as she bent over him, rocking back and forth.
A soldier wearing the inevitable Chinese cap and the red scarf around his neck had been watching all this. He rushed over with his rifle, lifted Chek by the arm, and tried to drag her away. At first she would not release Yann, but Tor ran over and tenderly took the boy from her arms. By that time, Chek realized the danger she was in and let the soldier take her through the village to Pech.
Three days later, when the soldier was out of hearing, with silent tears streaming down her cheeks, Chek shared with Tor what happened next:
In a high-pitched voice the soldier told Pech, "Her son died, and she bawled over him, crazy-like."
"I couldn't help my tears, even in front of Pech," Chek said, "but I collected myself enough to bow to him. I clasped my hands in front of me subserviently. I'd seen what happened to one of the women who broke down in tears of fatigue while digging an irrigation ditch. She would not or could not pick up her shovel, even when the guard yelled at her to get back to work. The guard reported her and Pech accused her of being a counter-revolutionary. You remember it, Tor? A soldier dragged her into the woods, and in minutes returned alone."
Chek wiped her tears away so the soldier wouldn't see them. "Pech hates anyone who is unenthusiastic for the revolution." When Tor nodded, she continued. "I was so scared when Pech asked angrily, 'Why are you crying? You think more of your son than of the revolution. You're a fucking antirevolutionary. You cry just because your son died. The revolution means chicken shit to you.'"
Chek stopped to look around to make sure they weren't observed. Tears still flowed, and she wiped at them with the back of her hand. "I knew, Tor," she whispered, "that I would soon join my son in death unless I did the right thing. I had learned over the months how this horrible Angka--organization--works.
"I shook my head, trying to stop crying over Yann. I was afraid my voice would give me away to Pech, but it grew firmer as I spoke. I told Pech, 'I'm ashamed, that's why I cry. The revolution is now deprived of my son. I know . . . that he'd have grown up to be . . . a strong communist.' I looked Pech in the eye--I itched to scratch them out with my fingernails, Tor, but what could I do? --and I added, 'Maybe even a good village chief, like you.'
"Pech snorted, 'You lie,' but his voice lacked confidence.
"'No, no, no,' I asserted. 'I love the revolution.'"
Chek's voice was a hiss of hatred as she told Tor, "I would shit on the revolution, and I almost said that, but I didn't want to die. I wanted to do something, anything, for my dead son. Even if all I could do was live, so I could remember his life.
"His brow furrowed, and Pech squinted at me for a few minutes. He turned to the soldier standing nearby, holding his rifle pointed in my general direction. 'Has she shown any other counter-revolutionary behavior?' Pech asked him.
"The soldier responded with clear reluctance, 'No.'
"'Has she been a good worker?'
"'Well . . . '
"'Answer me!' Pech roared.
"'Yes,' the soldier barked, almost coming to attention.
"'Okay.' Pech looked back to me. I still held my half bow. He told me, 'Go back to work and we will take care of your son's body. I warn you: I'll be watching you. Go.'
"And that's when I returned to the field."
Chek stopped for a moment and looked down at her callused and dirty hands. As Tor had listened to Chek, she remembered how she had felt when watching Chek come back. She had seen Chek will herself not to look at her son's body, now lying alone in the dirt. Tor had cried inside. She had ached to put her arms around Chek, to comfort her, but had known it might mean her own death.
Chek looked at Tor again, but her gaze was turned inward at her private horror. Her eyes were wet. She picked up where she had left off. "When I got back to my place in the field, my tears returned, and with my back to Pech and the soldier, I let them fall. The pain, Tor! The pain of passing by Yann's body without saying goodbye, without kissing him one last time, without caressing his beautiful cheeks, was almost too much for me. My stomach knotted, and I thought I would vomit. The aching pressure of containing my grief had built behind my eyes until a throbbing headache made thought almost impossible. I felt I would collapse, but I made it past my son's body."
Tor nodded in silent sympathy. She again remembered Chek's effort, had seen the woman lurch past her son's body, then catch herself from stumbling outright.
Chek drew a tremulous breath and finished in a flat voice, "I took up my hoe and returned to work."
Weeks later, Tor saw Chek's body dangling in the woods. She'd taken a vine and hung herself.
That night, when Pech's spies would not see her, Tor wept. She realized then she could not long survive herself. Chek's death was the reason she later agreed with Nguon to attempt an ill-prepared and hasty escape from the village and Cambodia when he said they must flee or die.
What had done it for him was the sheer horror of Mey Samoeun's murder.
Also evacuated from Phnom Penh, Mey was an agricultural scientist and college teacher. He kept this a secret from everyone, but he forgot himself during one of the reeducation lectures on the great agricultural revolution wrought by Pol Pot, and the Khmer Rouge "breakthrough innovations in irrigation."
Mey, who had became a close friend of Nguon, whispered, "Pure crap." He then explained why he knew so much about it.
Nguon, of course, returned the favor and admitted he taught as well.
Later, as Mey worked in the field, he couldn't help displaying a deep knowledge of plants and soil. The soldiers noted this and informed Pech.
During one mealtime, Pech approached the branch table where Mey was eating and leaned over to look at him. "I hear you are a good man in the field," he said briskly. Mey didn't know what to say.
Pech stared at him for about ten seconds, as though expecting him to confess to a plot to overthrow the Khmer Rouge. Then he gave him a grisly smile and ordered, "Every day, starting tomorrow, from 9 to 11 AM you will teach the kids what you know about farming. We will pick the kids out. They are the ones still too young to do the revolution's great work."
Trembling, Mey started to breathe again.
He began teaching the next day and seemed to enjoy the children.
A month later a squad of soldiers stopped at the village to rest, and happened to pass by Mey's outdoor class. One of the soldiers halted so suddenly that the one behind him almost bumped into him. The soldier stared at Mey. Then he hurried over to a peasant feeding the village chickens, and demanded to know where the chief was. The peasant pointed out his hut.
The soldier cast another look over his shoulder at Mey, who was unaware of the attention, and strode to the chief's hut.
"Comrade Chief," he had yelled outside the entrance, then disappeared inside. Several minutes later, the chief came out with the soldier, who now pointed his AK-47 in Mey's direction.
His mouth a thin line, his eyes narrowed to slits, Pech stalked up to Mey's class. Waving his hands in the air, he roared, "Stop. Mey, come here."
Looking at the soldier, Pech demanded loudly, "Is this him?"
"Yes," the soldier snapped, now looking frightened himself. "I was a student in his class. I heard he did work for the government."
"You're a spy," Pech yelled at Mey.
"No, I'm not. I did no more than help the government protect mango from fruit flies."
"You're a spy," Pech spat. He motioned to the soldier. "Take him and tie him to that post in front of my hut."
The soldier moved behind Mey and poked him in the back with his gun. Using it as a prod, he forced Mey over to the post, where he made Mey sit down and then he tied him fast by wrapping a heavy rope around his torso, arms, and the post. Pech ignored May the rest of the day and through the evening. No one could approach him for fear for their own life.
As Nguon worked in the field, he asked various people, "What happened to Mey?" One of them was the peasant who'd been feeding the chickens and heard everything. He relayed it all to Nguon.
When everyone was released from work for the day and the reeducation lecture was over, Nguon sat for hours in the door of their hut, looking over at Mey. Tor tried to get him to sleep, but he wouldn't even respond to her. She found him still there in the morning, lying on his side, asleep.
At mid-morning the next day, Pech called together all the peasants and evacuees and took them to a flowering shower tree that grew behind the huts. They stood beneath masses of beautiful bright flowers in shades ranging from pale red to white. Birdsong filled the air around them. The sun had not yet burned away the delightful morning smell of growing things--of life. A few white puffs of clouds dared to intrude on the rich blue of the sky. The air was dry and comfortable. A gentle breeze played across the downcast faces of those waiting by the tree.
It was a great morning, a gorgeous spot.
Mey was still tied to the post, now with soldiers standing on either side of him. Pech, dressed in his usual black uniform, glowered at them all and waved an American military .45 caliber handgun at Mey. Nobody had seen the handgun before.
"The CIA and KGB are working to overthrow our glorious revolution," he bellowed. "Their shitty spies are everywhere. There are also agents of hated and corrupt capitalists at work among us. Now watch and you will see what we do to these counter-revolutionaries." He raised his gun and fired a shot into the sky.
The two soldiers guarding Mey untied him from the post, then retied his hands when he staggered to his feet. He was too weak to walk. They half carried him to the tree. A soldier threw a long rope knotted into a noose over a lower branch. Mey did not protest or move when the soldiers dragged him over to the noose, tied his feet, and placed the noose around his neck. He said not a word.
A soldier had entered one of the huts. Now he emerged with six of the children Mey had been teaching. Soldiers led them to the tree and instructed them to line up by the long end of the rope that fell along the ground from the tree limb. They were too solemn and quiet for young children, and seemed confused. A soldier picked up the rope and put it in their hands. Although the soldier had probably spent some time early in the morning instructing them, he still had to make tugging motions several times before the children would pull on the rope.
Looking back and forth between the rope and the soldier, the children pulled halfheartedly on the rope, yelling, "Bad teacher. Bad teacher."
They pulled Mey off his feet and he hung a few feet above the ground, his tied legs jerking back and forth. The children released the rope, and Mey fell to the earth in a shower of flowers knocked loose from the shaken branch. Encouraged by the soldier, the children picked up the rope and tugged with more vigor, walking backwards several feet, pulling Mey off his feet and above the ground a second time. They still chanted, "Bad teacher, bad teacher."
The soldier motioned the children on several more times, until Mey was dead. By then, the children were enjoying the new game. And the ground around Mey was carpeted with flowers.
Nguon watched, his face frozen in grief. Tor was terrified that he would do or say something. She got as close to him as she could and tried to hold his hand, but it was stiff, ice-cold, and unresponsive.
When the hanging was over, Nguon rushed back to their work on the irrigation ditch. Tor hurried after him. He worked silently, with single-minded determination, for the rest of the day. He ate nothing at the evening meal. He said nothing during the re-education lecture, or afterwards. Finally, back in their hut, he whispered to Tor so that none of Pech's spies could hear, "We are escaping tonight."
"But dearest," Tor whispered, "can we? We're not ready."
Nguon looked at her with tears in his eyes, his face revealing the misery he had been holding within him all day. "We must. I can't promise that if we stay another day, I won't say or do something that will get us both killed. All I think about is grabbing a gun from one of the soldiers and shooting him, and finding and killing that fucking bastard Pech. I would then die happily, but the soldiers would also kill you, my love."
With the image of Chek hanging from a vine still fresh in her mind, Tor touched a finger to Nguon's tightly compressed lips and whispered, "We'll go. Let's get ready."
They'd been planning to escape, though not this soon. They'd been stockpiling food and supplies, but couldn't hide them in the hut, for Pech's spies occasionally searched their hut while they were working. They had bartered for a raincoat, wrapped everything in that, and hid it in a pile of rocks beneath the thick trunk of a leaning tree, where it was protected from all but the worst rainstorms.
Now, they put in their bags the few items they kept in their hut.
The night was warm and low clouds hid the moon. It felt like rain was coming. Her body shaking, Tor wiped sweat from her forehead and listened to the night sounds, breathing deeply to soothe her rapid heartbeat and, perhaps for the last time, to capture the sweet smell of plumeria flowers nearby. Nguon was so still, so quiet next to her. When she took his hand, she could feel his heartbeat through it. She knew he was trying to think through their escape. She knew he also feared this would be their last night alive.
Around one or two o'clock in the morning--without lantern, flashlight, or matches, without food or water, without much hope--they fled.
Their night vision was good, and Nguon knew the direction they must go. They felt their way carefully through the woods, following certain trees and bushes whose locations they'd memorized to bring them to the rocks and their store. They quickly put everything in their bags and pushed on.
"By dawn," Nguon whispered, "we must be far away from here."
He led the way through the woods, relying on his memory and landmarks to find the road away from their village. They hurried along the road until the sky began to lighten. Then they moved far enough into the gloom of the woods that soldiers would not see them from the road. When it got light enough, Nguon was able to determine the direction the sun traveled by the moss on the rocks and trees. He led them west, toward Thailand.
They traveled this way for several days, wending through the woods and sleeping in them during the day, treading the narrow roads and paths during the night, their eyes scouring the darkness in every direction for patrols. They gave Phum Knol and several smaller villages a wide berth. At last they reached the wide pass through the mountains to Boi Russey, the last small town before Thailand, and part of a line of Khmer Rouge outposts whose patrols sought to catch escapees from Cambodia.
After they had passed the village of Boi Russey, they were caught in a rainstorm. Nguon slipped on a mossy rock, and as he fell his foot slid under another rock, breaking his ankle. He couldn't muffle his scream of pain.
Behind him Tor also cried out. She rushed over and knelt by Nguon's leg. Her wet hair fell over her face as she studied his foot. It was bent at a right angle and twisted backwards. She covered her mouth, but could not prevent a gasp from escaping.
Bracing himself on his elbows, Nguon looked at his foot for a moment. "Give me some cloth."
"Why?" Tor cried.
"Please," Nguon said in a voice tight with pain.
Tor got up and leaned over her bag to protect the contents from the rain as she pulled out an old blouse. She handed it to Nguon.
He took it, folded it into a thick roll, and told her through gritted teeth, "I'm going to put this in my mouth and bite down on it. When I do, don't wait. Straighten out my foot."
He chomped down hard on the cloth and motioned to his foot. Tor leaned over, sheltering the broken ankle from the rain with her body. She gripped it and with a jerk twisted it back to its normal position. Tor heard the broken bones grinding against each other. Nguon groaned as his body heaved.
Shaking with sobs, Tor looked up at Nguon as he tried to control his pain. After some moments, he gasped, "Get me a straight, thick stick."
Tor got up and staggered over the unfamiliar ground in the drizzling rain, searching for a fallen branch. Finding one, she returned to her bag, pulled out her knife, and cleaned the branch of leaves and twigs. Knowing why Nguon wanted it, she cut the branch into a two-foot length, placed it beside Nguon's broken ankle, and took a shirt out of his bag. She cut it into strips, and placed them beside the stick. She had been able to stop crying, but still her voice broke when she told him, "Put my blouse back in your mouth, dearest."
He gripped it with his teeth again, and closed his eyes.
Tor placed the branch against his broken ankle. It came almost up to his knee. She held it against his leg and wound the strips of cloth until she was sure the leg couldn't move. The most difficult step was securing the floppy foot to the branch, but she did this by winding the strips around the foot, and then around the branch. She was gasping for breath when she finished.
Nguon took the blouse out of his mouth. His face was drained of blood, his eyes full of pain. He wheezed, "I've got to rest." He added in a firmer voice, "See if you can find something I can use as a crutch."
Tor searched the woods nearby for a long, solid branch with another branch protruding from it at nearly a right angle. It must fit under his armpit to support his weight. She found nothing on the ground, and she was about to climb a tree to cut off a useful branch when she heard voices in the distance.
She scampered back to Nguon, who had also heard the voices. They were indistinct, but getting louder. Suddenly, a few clear words made plain that this was a Khmer Rouge patrol. They were tracking them.
Nguon tried to sit up, but fell back. He pointed to their bags and whispered urgently, "Go, go, take the bags and go west." He pointed in the direction they had been headed "Quick. Go."
"No, I can't desert you. No dearest, we will die together."
Gritting his teeth, he managed to raise himself on his elbow, and tried to push her away. "You must not die. You must tell people about the horror here. All the deaths and killing. Go. Make it never happen again." He pushed her again, weakly.
Her eyes widened and her hand flew to her mouth in terror. She could hear the soldiers in the distance, moving through the forest toward them.
Tor looked at her loving husband for the last time. She tried to fill her memory with his beautiful face. Too soon, too quick, the approaching voices broke the spell. "Goodbye, my dearest husband," she said tenderly, but the words felt ripped out of her. "I will never forget you, and I will never forgive. I love you."
She slipped into the forest.
About fifteen minutes later, she was sure she heard a shot. She stopped, leaned her head against a tree, and silently sobbed, "Yes, my dearest, I will never forget you. And I will join you as soon as I can." Her commitment calmed her enough to move on. She noted where the sun was through the haze of rain clouds, and pointed herself west.
For days, Tor trudged through the forest. She was lost, but knew one thing--west, she must head west, always west. The sun was her guide. When it was cloudy, she determined west by where the moss grew the thickest on the tree trunks. She thought of Chek, of Mey, but most of all, of Nguon and their happy, loving life together. Only thus could she distract herself from her awful physical pain.
She was bleeding from numerous thorn scratches on her bare legs, and her skin was bruised all over from falling on rocks and tripping over roots. Her slippers had fallen apart days ago and she now limped along barefoot, her feet bleeding from blisters and cuts.
Tor stopped at a little stream to wash herself, soak her battered feet, and eat the last grains of rice and some fruit she had picked. She was bone-weary, and the cold water was a blessed relief. She thought she'd shed all the tears humanly possible, but when she saw her reflection in a little pool the stream created, she broke down in sobs again.
She tried to gather her strength. She must survive for the sake of her husband. He had told her to survive, to "make it never happen again." Tor wiped her tears and placed Nguon's six-inch carving knife close by, as she had done whenever she stopped. She pushed her tortured feet deeper into the cool water.
At that moment, from the edge of the forest, she heard, "Who are you?"
Her heart thumping, almost dizzy with fear, she slowly raised her eyes toward the voice and saw a Khmer Rouge soldier no more that fifteen feet away. He probably was part of a patrol and had decided to stop at the stream for a drink. He held an American M-16 carbine on his shoulder. A combat knife hung from his American military belt, and grenades were attached to his bandoleer. He was a skinny kid, no more than eighteen years old, she thought.
For a moment, she sat stunned, rocking with the rapid beat of her heart. Then from deep inside, her most basic instinct told her what to do. No thought was needed. She took two deep breaths and painted a smile on her face. Without saying a word, she rose and turned full toward him. Eyes vampish, she swept her hair back from her face, then slowly unbuttoned and removed her blouse. She wore nothing underneath, and she bent forward to let her breasts shake a little. A moment later she straightened and took off her shorts and panties. Turning her body away from the boy soldier, she bent over to place her shorts on the stone beside her knife, at the same time lifting the knife and holding it so that her right wrist hid the blade.
As she intended, the boy saw Tor's genitals as she bent over. When she stood up and turned toward the boy, his eyes were round and his face was flushed. Naked, she glided toward him, murmuring huskily, "I want you. I want to fuck. Fuck me."
The boy stood frozen in place as he ogled her breasts and pubic hair. Quite probably, given the strict rules against sex imposed upon the Khmer Rouge soldiers, he was a virgin who had never seen a naked woman so close before. She approached him and put his hand on her breast, and then dropped her left hand to rub his swollen crotch.
The boy soldier reached between her legs, and she lifted her free hand with the hidden knife as if to slip her arm around his neck. She sliced deep into his throat, cutting the carotid artery, and quickly dodged the spurting blood.
The boy grabbed his throat. Blood gushed between his fingers. He gurgled, dropped to his knees, and toppled over.
Tor scrambled for her clothes, bundled them under her arm, and shook her knife in the stream to wash it. She picked up her bag, then rushed back to the boy's body and pulled the carbine from under him. Now armed, she continued west. She stopped to dress only when safely away from the dead boy and the patrol.
Three torturous, never-ending days later, after climbing and descending a series of wooded hills, weakened by lack of food, with leaden legs and her feet a bloody mess, she staggered down an incline toward a level area of bushes and grass. Partly delirious, she muttered over and over, like a Buddhist mantra, "I will survive. I will live. I promised him. I must survive . . ."
Tor heard a motor. She stopped, swaying, and silently screamed, "No, no, please, no. Not them. Not after I've come so far."
She could barely lift her head to look death in the face.
There! There--a good road, running parallel to the hills. And on it, she saw a man riding by on a bicycle. And another one, riding from the opposite direction. She stumbled toward a patch of tall grass, hoping it would hide her movements as, one small step at a time, she approached the road. She stared as a motor scooter driven by a woman in a flowing blue dress passed along the road. Then an American car.
She was in Thailand!
Tor tried to stand straight. Swaying with the effort, she looked back at the mountains as if through a wet window. She planted her bleeding feet, gripped the carbine by its barrel, and swung it forward, hurling it back toward Cambodia. She fell as she released it, and buried her face in the grass, inhaling the smell of growing grass and rich earth--of Thailand. She kissed the ground.
She twisted onto her back, looked up at the cloudy sky, and croaked, "We made it, dearest. You are here," and she touched her chest. "Here in my heart forever, my husband."
Tor sat up and pulled her bag to her. She had consolidated what she could from Nguon's bag, and saved from it a photograph of them that Nguon always kept with him. She took it out, laid it on her lap, sought for the locket she would not barter, and set that beside the photo. Then she took out her knife, wiped her tears away, and cut her and Nguon's faces out of the photograph. After making sure Nguon's face fit the locket, she folded her face underneath that of Nguon's, and trimmed the sides to fit within the locket. She opened the locket and inserted the result over her parents' picture. She looked at Nguon's face for a few moments, kissed it, closed the locket, put the chain over her head, and let the locket fall down above her heart.
"Now, my dearest, you are here," and she put her right hand over the locket and her heart.
Her legs were almost too cramped with fatigue to move as she struggled to stand up. Putting one bloody foot in front of the other, she hobbled toward the passing vehicles.
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